7 Spooky Nonfiction Books for Halloween, Plus More Scary True Stories

Every autumn I find myself looking for at least a few spooky-themed books to read as Halloween approaches. It’s a little trickier with nonfiction, especially if you avoid the more unquestionably accepting/woo-woo ones, but there are still plenty of possibilities if you like your creepy stories full of truthiness!

With Halloween weekend upon us, here’s a roundup of some spooky nonfiction I can recommend that addresses the eerie, the uncanny, and the undead.

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Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, by Colin Dickey – I recommend this  endlessly because it’s exactly what I love in true ghost stories – detailed, scary, but with a skeptic’s careful consideration of historical factors and logical possibilities. Dickey looks at famous haunting stories in American history and unravels what was going on in the greater culture and in these cases specifically to make more sense of the hauntings. It’s a rich cultural exploration of why some ghost stories happen. The story of West Virginia’s Greenbrier ghost is my favorite.

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American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest, by Hannah Nordhaus. The author investigates the legend-like story that her great-great-grandmother sadly haunts a hotel in New Mexico, and it becomes a twisting, dense but compelling family story that examines the intersections of truth and myth. This one goes a little heavier on the history and less on the supernatural, but that usually ends up being the truth of it all anyway. If you love a historical family story with an eerie angle, it’s a great read. (PS – it’s a 1.99 Kindle deal right now!)

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Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, by Mary Roach – Roach is a logic-loving skeptic who doesn’t necessarily want to be one when it comes to considering the other side. She admits she still believes in some inexplicable details and mystery even after these thorough, scientific investigations of concepts like spiritualism and its accompanying ectoplasm, near-death experiences, reincarnation, the weight of a soul and much more. Her brilliant sense of humor and accessibility in storytelling really make this one.

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Not in Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic is Transforming America, by Christine Wicker – A journalist takes a lighthearted look at various magical groups, what they believe and how it all works – including witches, hoodoo practitioners, modern vampires, “otherkins” (people identifying as various mythical creatures) and chaos magicians, to name a few. A frequent consideration is magical thinking and how this concept is at the root of so many belief systems, with a blurry line separating it from religion.

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The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombies, and Magic , by Wade Davis – An anthropologist goes deep into the secret societies practicing magic in Haiti, which sometimes includes the darkest act of creating human zombies. Davis is on a mission to identify which plants or substances are being used to create the mixtures that make “zombification” possible, and he’s drawn into the intersection where magic, religion, and Haitian social culture intertwine. Eerie, unsettling, completely fascinating.

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Through a Glass, Darkly: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Quest to Solve the Greatest Mystery of All, by Stefan Bechtel and Laurence Roy Stains – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the most logical detective in literature, was himself a devotee of the now-debunked spiritualist movement: mediums and seers who claimed to be able to raise the veil between this world and the next. This book details his involvement in spiritualism with some well-told background of the movement, plus his frenemy-ship with Harry Houdini, who wanted to believe in life after death and the possibility of communication but couldn’t resist busting frauds in the act.

Mountain of the Dead: The Dyatlov Pass Incidentby Keith McCloskey / Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, by Donnie Eichar – This one’s a double, because both books are good looks at one of the scariest stories I know. Nine students disappeared on a hiking trip in the Ural mountains in 1959, and when their bodies were found, the story they told of their terrifying deaths was bizarre, unnatural, and remains inexplicable.

If you haven’t discovered Jan O’s blog (a name that always delights me: Book ‘Em, Jan O), it’s a treasure trove of ghost stories, true and fictional. Jan gathers true stories of hauntings and all manner of ghostly encounters and presents them with her irreverent sense of humor. And she’s so well-versed in supernatural, otherworldly topics, plus has a rich literary background and thorough historical understanding that she uses to provide fascinating, thoughtful analysis of what haunts us and why. I love hearing her take on these and talking scary books and stories with her – she always has a smart, experienced perspective.

She was also kind enough to give me a copy of a nonfiction book she’s written, About Ghosts: A Useful Handbook. It gives an enlightening overview of various topics around ghosts, the paranormal, and hauntings through history – like differentiating the different kinds of hauntings and what each means, their connections to literature and historical events, etc. It’s a highly informative read that gives some insight into what areas you might be interested in investigating further, even academically, and Jan is an excellent guide to any of them. Her site, books and stories are so much fun and should be required reading for any spooky story lover.

And if you love scary true stories and you’re not yet listening to the Lore podcast, it’s another must. Host Aaron Mahnke tells incredible, historical true stories from world folklore in a vein similar to Ghostland, meaning filling in all the contextual details about how and why these stories began, but allowing for that mysterious element that keeps possibilities and questions open.

The episodes cover various iterations of the undead and other superstitious, paranormal, supernatural, or just plain odd phenomena, and it’s meticulously researched and compellingly told. He’s also released a few “World of Lore” nonfiction books (Monstrous Creatures, Dreadful Places, Wicked Mortals) and an Amazon TV series. I haven’t read the books yet but the podcast is so wonderful in its blend of myth, reality, and general spookiness while telling the scary truth, I can only imagine they’re similarly fantastic.

Have you read any of these or planning to? What’s your favorite scary nonfiction? Any chilling must-read suggestions?

30 thoughts on “7 Spooky Nonfiction Books for Halloween, Plus More Scary True Stories

  1. I like that Mary Roach book. Have you read “Stiff” by her, about death? Also good, interesting and with a touch of humor. Thanks for the recommendations on the others. I might check out that Ghostland one.

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    1. Spook is the only one of hers I’ve read, I’ve avoided Stiff because I’m squeamish. But I’ve heard so many glowing things about it, I think I need to give it a try. Thanks for the recommendation! I think Ghostland is a must-read, it’s fascinating. I’d heard several of the ghost stories there told before without consideration of any of the angles he presents that take away some of the mystery, but are worth knowing. Kind of like what Mary Roach did in Spook.

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  2. I’ve been hooked on true ghost stories since The Amityville Horror was released. I’m also addicted to the trend of “true” ghost explorations on TV such as Ghost Adventures (as hokey as it is) and others. However, if I ever saw a real ghost I’d probably wet myself. 🙂

    Thanks for the recommendation of the podcast Lore. I’m almost finished listening to the recent season of Spooked and need something else to give me shivers while exercising.

    And Mary Roach is the best. I’ve read everything by her with Stiff and Packing for Mars being my favorites.

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    1. I’m right there with you on the hokey but compelling “true” ghost TV shows, you’re not alone! And same, I’m completely terrified of ghost things which may be why I love books and stories that help to debunk them…I feel reassured and a little more able to sleep after I’ve heard a terrifying ghost story.

      Thank YOU for mentioning the Spooked podcast, I didn’t know it and will be beginning it immediately! Having new and exciting podcasts to listen to helps motivate me to exercise, so big thanks for that 🙂

      I haven’t read anything else Mary Roach but I loved her style and writing in Spook, she’s really unique!

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      1. Do read more of Mary Roach. What I love about her is not only her sense of humor but her willingness to subject herself to any type of experiment so she knows exactly how to relate it to readers.

        I have a list of spooky podcasts somewhere which I’d be glad to send if you don’t already have it.

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      2. My hesitation to read anything else of hers is that I’m just not interested in the other subjects she writes about. I know that’s not necessarily a reason not to read something, but it’s like I can’t stir up any interest in the slightest for the other topics. I’m in the minority there, I know!

        And I would absolutely love a list of spooky podcasts if you want to share! Always happy for new podcast recommendations 🙂

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      3. Quite honestly, as much as I love Mary Roach I was very reluctant to read GRUNT as the topic of war didn’t interest me at all. Turned out I was riveted.

        Here is the podcast list from Bustle. Lore is on it as is Spooked. Can’t vouch for others, though. https://www.bustle.com/p/13-creepy-ghost-story-podcasts-that-will-get-you-in-the-mood-for-halloween-12040065?fbclid=IwAR15kq5lD0bzUosgMmoc0tTN4n5hevz0Cxz2RosqWP9ncGoFE6O7_8v4z88

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      4. I do love when a book can do that for you! Maybe I’ll pick up another of hers one of these days, I hear nothing but praise for them.

        Thanks for the podcast list!! Seems like a lot of good ones there, I love Last Podcast on the Left and Moonlit Road sounds intriguing.

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  3. Wow – I was reading your blog, as is my usual morning treat, and lo and behold, I saw not only mention of some great ghostly reads, but there I was! How VERY kind of you to have written such a wonderful commentary about my blog and my book, About Ghosts! I am just speechless with delight (if I can ever be described as “speechless” 🙂 ) — and I’m deeply honoured. Thank you from my heart. I’m going to reblog this, it’s too lovely not to share with my readers! 💕👻💕👻😊

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    1. You’re so welcome, Jan, thank YOU for the book – I read it one sitting and have been meaning to do a write-up for awhile and this seemed the perfect opportunity/time of year for it 🙂 You know I always love your writings, you give me so much to think about (and laugh about! Your site always cheers me up, really!) So you’re very welcome, was the least I could do considering all the fantastic reads you’ve shared with me. Big thanks to you! 💕 👻😊

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    1. Thanks so much! Hope it gave you some reading ideas. The Dyatlov story is just so engrossingly bizarre, I can’t get enough of it. It’s one of those that I think we’ll never definitively know the answer to but it’s so creepily fascinating to think about.

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  4. So here’s more. As I said, I love this kind of stuff.

    A newly released book that has me fascinated is Frighteners: Why We Love Monsters, Ghosts, Death & Gore by Peter Laws. I haven’t delved into it yet but I have it on hold at the library.

    Also, enjoy Richard Estep’s nonfiction on the “real” supernatural events. The latest is Trail of Terror.

    For hokiness, Three Nights in the Clown Motel by David Schmidt is fun to read, but probably because we have passed that motel whenever we drive through Tonopah, Nevada, plus the Ghost Adventures episode was hilarious (spoiler alert: Schmidt reports the moving lobby clown was hooked up with fishing line).

    I was ready to put Ghostland on hold but realized I had already read it. In my GoodReads review, I noted the most interesting chapters for me were Portland’s Cathedral Park/St. John’s bridge, the Mustang Ranch outside of Reno, and the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose.

    Thanks for the Dead Mountain book. I just put it on hold. Bring on Halloween!

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    1. Oh my gosh I didn’t know any of these, thank you!!! I’m looking them all up now and seeing what I can get from the library, they all sound interesting. The Frighteners especially sounds really good, I love Jon Ronson’s books and it says it’s similar to his writing style. I haven’t seen that Ghost Adventures episode but it sounds like a lol. That’s so cool that youve been to that hotel. Was it spooky?

      I remember the Winchester story from Ghostland, that’s always been a creepy one, in that weird house with the hallways that go nowhere. I may have to reread Ghostland, I read it shortly after it came out and realize I’ve forgotten so much of it already. I’m glad there were some stories in it that you liked! Thanks again for so many great recommendations!

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      1. Not at all, thanks so much for pointing me towards so many interesting-sounding ones!! Adding that one to my list along with the others 🙂 I wanted to try to be a little more prepared in advance to make a similar scary nonfiction list for next year and I think it’s going to consist almost entirely of your amazing recommendations!

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  5. Non-fiction never occurs to me when I’m thinking of spooky reads but you’ve picked some great looking ones here! The one about Conan Doyle sounds interesting and I’ve still been thinking about the idea of real zombies since you reviewed that one recently. I did read a book on the history of horror as a genre this year, which was excellent, so I suppose that counts as non-fiction…

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    1. Nonfiction never used to cross my mind in terms of spooky scary reads, mostly because I hate the ones that insist on being “true stories” but have no grounding in science, medicine, etc., but I’ve loved finding ones that do. And a history of horror totally counts, and sounded really interesting! Perfect for this time of year too 🙂

      I really recommend the Conan Doyle one, I learned so much from it and even without any particular interest in him as an author, I liked learning something about his life and personality. It was just an all-around good read.

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  6. You know, when I was a kid I loved checking out library books about the supernatural and paranormal. But as an adult I almost never read them. Yet I can watch TV shows that deal with that topic (Supernatural, Buffy, etc.) Somehow reading about spooky things is creepier than watching them. Maybe it’s because of my imagination, I don’t know.

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